History in a Historyless Place    

October 6, 2017
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From 2011 to 2017, I taught history in a fully accredited bachelor’s program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Darrington maximum security prison unit in Rosharon, TX.

The Darrington unit is an official extension campus of Southwestern Seminary, and the school has 148 students enrolled in the program. The students graduate with a B.S. in Biblical Studies, and are then placed in other units within the Texas prison system to serve as inmate chaplains. The student inmates are, for the most part, never getting out of prison. But, they have committed themselves to spend the rest of their lives serving others in prison. Prison presents many challenges, but teaching history there has the potential to provide a basis for meaning, identity, and civic engagement for the prisoners as they exist day-to-day as individuals and in community with each other.

How does the teaching of history serve as a grounding agent for meaning and identity? It does so by fostering civic engagement within the local community—the public—made up of the inmate students in Southwestern’s B.S. program at Darrington. Ironically, the seminary at Darrington bears the marks of a cultivated garden in the midst of a wilderness. The student-inmates at the Darrington extension campus of Southwestern have found their community, their place—and with it, a path toward meaningful engagement with each other for their common good, and ultimately for the good of the inmates of the entire prison. One way they do so is through their learning of history. As they learn history, they also learn to apply history to the real issues they experience together in the prison. As they do so, they learn how to productively engage in community with one another.

A model for a public’s healthy civic engagement is found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of what he found in 1830s New England. Specifically, Tocqueville provided a detailed description of the animating “spirit” of New England townships in Democracy in America. People in each New England township were members of their communities. As invested members, they found their communities to be worth the effort necessary for their care and management. Tocqueville noted that among the individuals in the various local groups, social distinctions and rank were non-existent. All were equals; thus, there was no oppression of one group by any other. Each person’s cooperation for the flourishing of the community brought them a sense of attachment and affection to it. Tocqueville wrote, “in the United States it is believed… that patriotism is a kind of devotion which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township is continually perceptible; it is daily manifested in the fulfillment of a duty or the exercise of a right; and a constant through gentle motion is thus kept up in society, which animates without disturbing it.”1

To be sure, the key to the spirit of the New England townships, according to Tocqueville, was their independent and self-governing status. In this regard, the model presented in Democracy in America is necessarily unattainable, to a certain extent. But even though the Darrington students will never have the opportunity for self-rule, either in the school or the prison, they will still have smaller opportunities to plot their courses forward. For example, they’ve established a church called Makarios, a Greek word meaning “blessed” or “happy.” Makarios is led entirely by student inmates, and prisoners who are in the general population are invited to attend their services. The students are part of an academic program in which they are organized by cohort. They are accepted into the program together, register for classes together, attend lessons together, then graduate together after four years. They forge strong bonds in this common experience of growth, challenge, and trial. And since the program is highly selective and defined by a vision of service to others, the students are a part of something that goes far beyond simply securing an education. They see themselves as part of a transformative movement of God. Byron R. Johnson conducted a study of an experimental faith based program attempted in the Texas prison system in the 1990s called InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). He found that because the program was strongly oriented around service to others, the prisoners involved in that program felt “an overwhelming desire, if not obligation, to make a positive contribution to the community.” Furthermore, their visceral experiences of “going ‘to hell and back’ especially qualify them to reach out and help others not to make the same mistakes they have made.”2 What Johnson observed in the IFI is clearly perceptible among the students in the Darrington unit.

So, while the inmate community of students at Darrington is not independent and free to the extent of the New England communities that Tocqueville visited in the 1830s, the differences between them are mitigated by elements essential to the program. One of those essential elements is the teaching of history.

For example, I taught four history courses: Western Civilization, History of Philosophy, American Cultural Issues, and Principles of American Politics. In Western Civ, the students learned that they are part of an old and developed tradition that has not yet seen an end to its development. In History of Philosophy, they engaged with the thinkers of the past and saw that they were not the first to think deeply about the nature of things, the meaning of knowledge, and the application of right and wrong. In American Cultural Issues, they learned that though they are in prison, they are still Americans and still have a voice and can definitively shape their own culture in positive and productive ways. And in Principles of American Politics, they learned that our experiment in self-government is still an experiment, and a continual process of learning and engagement with others who have different perspectives and beliefs about what defines good government.

In reading texts from the past, like Tocqueville, the students come face to face with real people who went before them and found meaning, identity, and purpose to their lives. Even in prison, the students see themselves in the people of the past. And, even in prison, the palpable sense of their own historylessness fades when they immerse themselves in human history.

About the Author
  • John D. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This year, he is the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1 (1945, repr; New York: Knopf, 1994), pp. 67–68.  

  2. Byron R. Johnson, More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2011), p. 129. 

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